Brewers-Dodgers generates its own drama

April, 19, 2012
4/19/12
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From beginning to end, this was baseball as it oughta be, any night and every night, from a first-pitch beginning to a dramatic finale. The Milwaukee Brewers came away with their second consecutive walk-off win when Ryan Braun's bases-loaded sac fly plated Nyjer Morgan in the bottom of the 10th for a 3-2 final. As a matter of odds, chance or simple fortune, it wasn’t really supposed to play out that way: Morgan ran through a stop sign, and thanks to the fallible human in blue as well as his own baserunning derring-do, he was ruled safe in what might be better called a sprint-off win, not a mere walk-off.

But from the start, this was one to watch. A contest between the Brewers with Zack Greinke on the mound, going up against baseball’s hottest batter and hottest team, Matt Kemp and the Los Angeles Dodgers? That’s a slice of baseball perfection, the everyday metronome of the season giving you something worth seeing, this night like every night. Add in a surprising pitching duel between between Greinke, the Brewers’ ace du jour, and Chris Capuano, a prodigal son come back to haunt Milwaukee. And add in another game between these two teams decided on the last at-bat, and you’ve got the makings of a rivalry forged on the field, the best way these things happen.

Nevertheless, high stakes ... in April? Well, no, of course not, every game counts the same, and the Dodgers weren’t going to go 9-1 every 10 times out. But after the Brewers’ late-game rally against the Dodgers on Tuesday night, when they won in the bottom of the ninth on George Kottaras two-run double off L.A.’s closer, Javy Guerra, you might have already had a sense that these two teams are more closely matched this time around than Milwaukee’s 14-win advantage from 2011 would suggest.

Morgan, ever the base-paths commando, gets credit for doing something wrong or foolhardy or gutsy or dumb, probably depending on your familiarity with base-out matrix, or perhaps your love or loathing of all things Tony Plush. But it’s more than that, and even Morgan’s scamper, ill-considered though it was, was simultaneously fun and decisive.

[+] EnlargeMilwaukee's Nyjer Morgan
AP Photo/Morry GashNyjer Morgan celebrates scoring the winning run in the 10th inning on a sacrifice fly from Ryan Braun.
You might wonder how Braun, reigning National League MVP, went to the plate in a 10th-inning tie and got to swing a bat in that situation. Well, say what you will about the Dodgers’ Matt Guerrier, the man on the mound, but give the credit to Tuesday’s man, George Kottaras, because Kottaras drew a free pass with runners on second and third and one out. If Kottaras doesn’t do that, if he makes an out, it’s Braun standing on first base with an unintentional/intentional walk and Aramis Ramirez who gets to be johnny-on-the-spot. No Kottaras walk, and we might still be enjoying baseball from Milwaukee. Even that bit of batsmanship was set up by tactical failure -- Ron Roenicke’s reliable penchant for gambitry had Morgan pinch-run and Cesar Izturis pop away a bunt just two batters into the 10th.

These aren’t the only bits of consistency for the Brewers from this year to last. Early on, you could wonder which Greinke was going to show up, the ace he helped propel the Brewers into the postseason, or the incendiary device who got lit up in his first 11 starts last season once he came back from the DL, surrendering 6.1 runs per nine. One out and a triple into the night, watching Kemp plate Mark Ellis from third, you could wonder.

But Greinke settled down from there, but it was the sort of game where the stars weren’t the only ones who shined. Capuano, a man who spent seven years with the Brewers but two of them on the DL with career-threatening elbow problems, was ready to deliver the sort of start that might make Dodgers GM Ned Colletti look good, grinding out six innings to provide a quality start against a good Brewers' offense. If Capuano’s durable enough to join Aaron Harang as innings eaters at the back end of the rotation while Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley do their thing from the front end, the Dodgers will be in enough ballgames to contend.

A.J. Ellis may not get a ton of credit as the Dodgers’ internal choice to fulfill their catching needs this season, but he has been a stathead fave for years for his willingness to work for walks. It was his chopper in the fifth that plated a lead run, and it was his eighth-inning baserunner kill, nailing Carlos Gomez with a perfect peg from behind the plate, that took the bat out of Corey Hart's hands. And maybe, just maybe, he got the tag on Kemp’s throw from shallow center down on Morgan in time; history may not record it, even if instant replay might. Of course, his throwing error in the 10th makes him partially responsible for the outcome, but the unloved Ellis had his moments as well.

Going forward, the Dodgers were due to cool off, and two late-game losses in a row might represent that bit of karma. But with Kenley Jansen coming into his own as baseball’s next great set-up man, Guerra’s talent, and Josh Lindblom looking pretty good, late-game drama won’t always come at the Dodgers’ expense.

And for Milwaukee? They’re still good, surprising nobody on this or any night to come. In the broad strokes, with Greinke’s season tally at two good starts and one awful one, you can wonder if his Jekyll-Hyde act can go only so far if his rep as a Cy Young winner is going to have any enduring value. That’s not just significant for the Brewers now as they try to defend their NL Central crown, it’s important for Greinke immediately afterwards, because he’s lined up to be a free agent this winter. He’ll make his millions, to be sure, but you can wonder if Greinke’s a great bet for the highest of high rollers in the biggest of big markets -- and the media glare that comes with such things.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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